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For some, MJ tunes fit like a glove

March 11, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

Does anyone else feel drained, already? As if watching Michael Jackson's own long career slide hasn't been hard enough, "American Idol" introduced its finalists this week with a "King of Pop"-themed show that had more peaks and gut punches than seemed possible so early in the game.

The brazenly gifted Adam Lambert had all four judges and the studio audience ready to push his dyed bangs aside and pour anointing oil on his forehead after he turned "Black or White," one of Jackson's most confrontational songs, into a glam-pride manifesto.

Danny Gokey, who could face off against Lambert at season's end, was also showered in judge-love for his rendition of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," which accelerated from a falsetto kiss to a full-on soul man's seduction.

And Allison Iraheta, representing for the rocker kids of Latino Los Angeles, dove headfirst into the pathos of Jackson's lust-rocker "Give In to Me" and ended up the season's official dark horse.

Then there were the heartbreakers -- foremost among them Anoop Desai's stumble on "Beat It," a song that proved musically too much for the sweetly overconfident North Carolinian. Desai is a strong but basically tactless singer, the kind who could benefit from the trial and error of a few weeks on the show. But he may not survive this overstep.

Equally wobbly was Jorge Nunez, who seemed to be chasing after the melody of "Never Can Say Goodbye" instead of reveling in it. It's sad that these two contenders, who bring new perspectives to "Idol," may not make it another week.

Their harried turns revealed the trickiness of Jackson's repertoire. His hits are so familiar that we forget how intricate they can be. In some, a singer must be able to go from feather-light melodicism to heavy aggression in the span of a single breath; in others, the build is everything, and so easily overdone.

A pedestrian delivery, such as Jasmine Murray's on "I'll Be There" or Alexis Grace's on "Dirty Diana," recalls Jackson's phrasing and begs unflattering comparison. A quirky one, like Megan Corkery's on "Rockin' Robin," threatens to slip into caricature.

For the "Idol" bunch, Jackson's music proved to be an obstacle course. Those who jumped in strong came out ahead. But beyond the star-making turns by the season's new Top 3, several less showy achievements should not be forgotten.

So here's to Matt Giraud, who treated Jackson's most opalescent song, "Human Nature," with kindness and grace; Kris Allen similarly triumphed by laying back on "Remember the Time."

And here's to Michael Sarver, who got the build just right on the inspirational "You Are Not Alone." Lil Rounds also deserves credit for finding a musical story in a Jackson song, uncovering the classic Motown roots of his Jheri-curl era hit "The Way You Make Me Feel."

Let's hope subtlety continues to form the undercurrent of this "Idol" season, even as its more spectacular voices ride its wave forward.

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ann.powers@latimes.com

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